First of all, let me preface my comments on the hiring of Oliver Purnell as the new men's basketball coach at DePaul by saying that I believe he is an excellent choice. He proved he could build a successful basketball program at football-crazy Clemson and compete with national powers Duke and North Carolina in the basketball-crazy Atlantic Coast Conference. For the time being, that's good enough for me. And it should be good enough for DePaul.
Sure, Purnell has never recruited a player from the Chicago area. In fact, I thought it was very revealing and slightly amusing that the only coaches he mentioned when the conversation turned to Chicago recruiting were AAU strongmen Larry Butler and Mac Irvin.
Another local AAU coach, Mike Irvin, Mac's son, later said he didn't know anything about Purnell, that he had no ties to Chicago. By the time you read this, I'm sure Mike's father has informed him of Purnell's pedigree.
Not surprisingly, some Public League coaches have voiced their resentment over Purnell's selection. They once complained if a new coach at DePaul or Illinois or UIC wasn't black. Now they complain if he doesn't come with their stamp of approval, if he hasn't already given them a good measure of respect. Clearly, at this moment, Purnell doesn't know them.
But don't forget that Public League coaches resented the hiring of Lou Henson at Illinois--until Henson hired Tony Yates and then Jimmy Collins as his chief recruiters in Chicago and all was forgiven. The same scenario occurred when DePaul hired Pat Kennedy, before he began to recruit the city's best players.
Public League coaches demand respect because they certainly don't wield much power. With the exceptions of Carver's Larry Hawkins, Simeon's Bob Hambric and King's Landon Cox, most of Chicago's elite players were lured to colleges beyond Illinois' borders because they were persuaded by AAU coaches, street agents or other influence peddlers.
Cox sent Efrem Winters and Marcus Liberty to Illinois, Levertis Robinson to Cincinnati and Ahmad Shareef to Pittsburgh. But he had no control when Rashard Griffith chose Wisconsin and Jamie Brandon, Imari Sawyer and Leon Smith were train wrecks.
Like Cox, Hambric had a good relationship with Illinois, sending Nick Anderson, Deon Thomas, Ervin Small, Bryant Notree and Calvin Brock to Champaign. But his successor, Robert Smith, wasn't a factor when Derrick Rose opted for Memphis, thanks to his brother Reggie's encouragement.
Why didn't DePaul consider Duke assistant Chris Collins, a local favorite and son of former Chicago Bulls coach and NBA star Doug Collins? Did Collins even express interest in the job? Isn't he hoping to be heir apparent to the Duke job when 63-year-old Mike Krzyzewski retires? Didn't DePaul make it abundantly clear that it wanted to hire someone with head coaching experience at the college level?
Isiah Thomas? He has a lot of baggage, something DePaul athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto surely considered. More importantly, he once had a chance to demonstrate loyalty to DePaul and he blew it. Old-timers and alumni haven't forgotten that Isiah had an opportunity to join his best friend Mark Aguirre when Ray Meyer was building a national power at DePaul. Instead, he chose Indiana.
Purnell is well-grounded and well-connected. He is close to George Raveling, Nike's godfather of grass-roots basketball. Raveling is close to Larry Butler, who runs one of the most successful AAU programs in the country.
Curtis Jackson, an old friend, a frequent poster to this blog and a keen observer of high school basketball and college recruiting in the Chicago area, suggests a possible game plan that Purnell might embrace, a sure-fire way to curry favor with Public League coaches and get his regime off in the right direction.
It calls for Purnell to hire Mark Aguirre or another well-known former Public League basketball star, Darrell Walker, as his associate head coach, fill in his staff with two or three assistants whom he knows well, then wait for Robert Smith to obtain his degree while serving as director of basketball operations.
Jackson reminds that is a similar plan that John Calipari implemented at Memphis when he hired one-time DePaul star Rod Strickland and former Memphis star Milton Wagner to join his staff.
No matter which strategy Purnell decides to imploy, look for the fireworks to begin sooner than later.